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Speaking Truth To Power: Speaking Truth To Ourselves
First in December in Seattle and then in April in Washington, DC the movement against corporate sponsored globalization spoke truth to power. Thousands of young people said they were sick of corporate arrogance, greed, and callous indifference to escalating economic injustice and suffering. They said capitalism and its values suck. They said they do not believe the economics of competition and greed is all people are capable of. They said they know people are capable of equitable cooperation and they were going to prove it. First in December in Seattle and then in April in Washington DC the movement against corporate sponsored globalization exposed neoliberal lies, challenged mainstream economic myths, opened a real public debate, and changed public opinion about corporate globalism.
Before Seattle corporate sponsored globalization and the machinations of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO were a back burner issue for most Americans. Those who paid any attention believed the only story they ever heard: Globalization of the corporate business system under the leadership of the U.S. is both inevitable and the best thing that could happen to the global economy. Radical liberalization of international trade and investment and privatization of public services yields global efficiency gains that will eventually trickle down to everyones benefit. That was the message preached by four successive Administrations in Washington, two Republican and two Democratic, approved by the most professional economists and endorsed by the mainstream media. They also believed the lie that anyone who said anything different was either seeking to protect unfair advantages of a special interest or a crackpot. After Seattle the public debate changed. Suddenly it was legitimate to question whether or not corporate sponsored globalization was benefiting the global majority or even a majority of Americans. After Washington, DC there are few who do not know that there are a number of us who are absolutely convinced that, far from yielding efficiency gains and benefits for all, corporate sponsored globalization actually misdirects productive potentials, benefits the few at the expense of the many, and accelerates environmental degradation.
Before Seattle most Americans had never heard of the WTO. Now most Americans know there is a debate about whether or not we were better off without the WTO to push trade liberalization contingent on enforcement of international patents and copyrights but not on enforcement of international labor and environmental standards. Before Washington most Americans thought the World Bank did what it claims it doesreduce world poverty and promote economic development. Now most Americans know that the evidence shows that the World Bank has failed to reduce global poverty and promote development while financing projects that displace the poor and hasten the destruction of tropical forests and ecosystems. Before Washington most Americans thought the IMF did what it claims it doeshelp countries that get into economic trouble. Now most Americans know many say the IMF changes the rules to benefit lenders at the expense of borrowers, bails out international banks, not poor countries, and forces poor countries to cut back on education and health programs and increase natural resource extraction for export to make interest payments on debts that are unpayable.
But we must not only speak truth to power, we must learn to speak truth to ourselves if our movement against corporate sponsored globalization is to grow and deepenwhich it must do if we are to be successful.
Being truthful with ourselves starts with being honest about how many of us there are and what we did. I was present in Seattle and Washington and offer the following account based on my own personal observations, and on over 30 years of going to demonstrations and estimating crowd size. In Seattle there were roughly 40,000 people who attended the labor-sponsored rally on Tuesday, November 30, and marched from the rally downtown in the afternoon. Those who rallied and took place in that spirited march were mostly union members brought to Seattle by their unions and the AFL-CIO, but included significant contingents of environmental activists and locals who wanted to show their opposition to WTO policies but did not wish to break laws and/or risk arrest. There were roughly 8,000 people organized by the Direct Action Network (DAN) into a network of affinity groups who blocked delegates from attending the WTO ministerial meetings beginning early in the morning Tuesday, November 30 through non-violent civil disobediencerisking arrest, tear gas, and clubbing. There were around 200 anarchists who avoided arrest and broke windows in Nike Town, Starbucks, and McDonalds in downtown Seattle after some police gassed, clubbed, and shot rubber bullets at DAN activists who they could not move. Later in the evening some local youths came downtown and broke windows in other upscale stores as well. The following day there were five or six groups of several hundred demonstrators who continued to protest the WTO meetings, the curfew, the state of emergency declared by the mayor of Seattle, and the arrests and mistreatment of their fellow demonstrators the previous day. These demonstrators drew more tear and pepper gas, were chased by police, and frequently clubbed and arrested when caught. There were considerably fewer demonstrators on Thursday and Friday. The total arrests for the week were over 700, over 300 of whom were students from Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington.
In Washington, DC there was a rally on the Mall Sunday, April 9 organized primarily by the U.S. chapter of Jubilee 2000 calling for debt cancellation. Roughly 5,000 people attended the rally, the majority brought by Jubilee 2000, but a considerable number brought by the AFL-CIO. On Wednesday, April 12, there was an mid-day rally organized by the AFL-CIO and Citizens Trade Campaign on the west steps of the Capitol building calling for Congress to deny China permanent normal trading relations status in hopes of keeping China out of the WTO. Roughly 7,000 people attended this rally, almost all of whom were older union members dressed in their union hats and jackets, most of whom came on buses from east coast cities other than Washington, DC. While there were a few environmentalists dressed as sea turtles, there were very few locals and very few A16 activists at this rally. In addition to various teach-ins, there were a number of small demonstrations between Thursday and Saturday, each with attendance in the one hundredsone at the Mexican embassy protesting military occupation of Chiapas, another outside a Gap store in Georgetown protesting sweat shops, and another against the prison industrial complex calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu Jamal. At the prison industrial complex demonstration early Saturday evening DC police trapped and arrested 678 people without cause, including 100s of bystanders who were not demonstrating at all. All arrested were kept handcuffed on buses for up to nine hours while being shuttled between a half dozen booking centers and ridiculed when they needed to relieve themselves. Many were lied to by police officers and judges. Many were threatened verbally and some were subject to physical abuse while in custody where Federal Marshals were often the worst offenders.
Early in the morning Sunday, April 16, roughly 8,000 demonstrators organized into affinity groups formed human barricades outside 18 police barricades surrounding the area containing the IMF and World Bank buildings that police had cordoned off for almost a week. These 8,000 A16 activists attempted to block delegates, most of whom were brought on buses from their hotels by police escort, from reaching the IMF building and meetings by linking arms, locking down, and other non-violent but ingenious tactics. A few hundred anarchists organized in small mobile groups reinforced A16 demonstrators at different barricades whenever police attempted to bring a bus through. These A16 activists and anarchists had every reason to expect to be arrested, gassed, or clubbed. In reality the police gave up attempts to clear the demonstrators away from the barricades by 10:00 AM with very few arrests and beatings, and very little gas being used, and almost all buses and the demonstrators turned delegates away. There were only 30 or so arrests the morning of April 16. Late in the morning roughly 11,000 different people attended a permitted rally organized by A16 on the ellipse. Local area labor activists working with A16, who obtained a belated endorsement from the AFL-CIO as well, largely organized this rally. But most who attended this rally were A16 folks who wanted to show their opposition to IMF policies without breaking laws or risking arrest. Early in the afternoon everyone from this rally marched to visit a number of the barricades nearby where A16 affinity groups continued to stand vigil across from riot police.
At the A16 spokescouncil meeting Sunday night called to finalize plans for Monday it was decided that some affinity groups would attempt to block World Bank delegate buses at their hotels early in the morning, some would attempt to get as near as possible to the World Bank and block the main entrance, but most people would gather at Constitution and 18th Street NW outside the police perimeter at 8:00 AM and decide what to do when they got there. Nobody at the meeting was particularly pleased by these plans, but it was not apparent what else could be done. Word was that National Guard reinforcements had been called up and the police had expanded their perimeter and therefore the number of barricades that would have to be blocked by demonstrators if World Bank delegates were to be prevented from getting to their meeting on Monday. It was also apparent that some of the 8,000 who had engaged in civil disobedience on Sunday had to leave town and would not be available Monday. The most vicious police behavior of the week was meted out to the hundreds of volunteers whose affinity groups tried to block delegate buses and the World Bank entrance early Monday morning. Neither the media nor the rest of us were present to witness this.
At 8:00 AM the National Guard occupied the corner of Constitution and 18th. People were directed by A16 spokespersons as they arrived to assemble at the ellipse instead. A little before 10:00 AM roughly 3,000 demonstrators marched out of the ellipse in a pouring rain into downtown streets jammed with rush hour traffic with puppets and signs, but without a permit. We were greeted by mostly friendly office workers, onlookers, and drivers as we marched for about two hours in downtown streets around the zone police had cordoned off. The march was the most spirited of the week despite the rain, despite the disappointment most of us felt at not being able to block delegates from attending the World Bank meetings, and despite the fact that we could see heavily armed riot police shadowing our march and threatening to box us in, as they had done to the prison industrial complex demonstrators on Saturday evening. Early in the afternoon we stopped at a police barricade as close to the main entrance to the World Bank as we could get. A16 spokespeople negotiated across the barricades with DC police an arranged arrest with minimal wear and tear on demonstrators and police alike. Demonstrators who wished to be arrested were allowed to cross the police line in small groups, sit down near the World Bank entrance, and be arrested peacefully without resistance. Roughly 700 people were arrested over the next 4 hours in this way while the rain continued to pour down, making a grand total of over 1,300 people arrested for the week.
Except for organizers and some union members who attended both, most of the demonstrators in Seattle were not in Washington and most who came to Washington had not been in Seattle. So the tens of thousands who attended permitted rallies in Seattle and in Washington were mostly different people, as were the 8,000 DAN activists in Seattle and the 8,000 A16 activists in Washington who engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. However, Jubilee 2000, CTC, the AFL-CIO, DAN/A16, and the anarchists organized and prepared for the two events in much the same way, what we actually did was quite similar, and the actual outcome was quite similar. Any perception that the events and outcomes were different is largely a product of media slant combined with differences in how the police behaved in Seattle and in DC. Newspaper headlines declared that demonstrators won the Battle of Seattle by disrupting the WTO meetings, and singled out the Seattle police and the anarchists for special criticism. The same newspaper headlines proclaimed that demonstrators failed to stop the IMF and World Bank meetings from taking place in Washington, DC, and singled out the DC police for special praise for maintaining order and keeping things peaceful.
I think there was very little chance headlines would have announced that demonstrators won the war of Washington no matter what had actually taken place. And I believe most of any actual differences in outcome were due to differences in how the police behaved in Seattle and in Washington.
The Seattle police made every tactical mistake possible. They were determined not to make mass arrests on November 30 fearing DAN wanted to overfill jails and holding facilities. As a result Seattle police resorted to large scale gassing and clubbing of demonstrators in an attempt to move them away from the buildings hosting the WTO meetings. Very few delegates were able to get into the opening day events because they were either repulsed non-violently by demonstrators or repulsed by the massive gassing that engulfed the downtown area. The brutal police tactics also provoked mobile affinity groups to break windows in retaliation. These disastrous first day police tactics also led to pressures from the Seattle chamber of commerce and from the White House on Seattles mayor and police chief to get things under controlor else. Hence the state of emergency, curfew, and order to arrest any and all groups in the downtown area.
In Washington the police corrected these tactical blunders while keeping an equivalent level of brutality largely invisible from public scrutiny. On Saturday, the day before the big demonstration, DC police acted illegally and provocatively twice. At 8:00 AM they raided and closed the A16 offices on the feeble excuse of fire code violations, claiming to be concerned for the safety of the A16 young people in the offices. (There are few buildings in DC that could not be raided for this reason.) They went out of their way to provoke demonstrators since they seized all the puppets and announced at a press conference that they had found a molotov cocktail in the A16 office. If there is one thing A16ers love it is their puppets. If there is one place in DC where there was not any weapon of any kind, it was the A16 office the morning before April 16. (When pressed by reporters the police spokesperson said there was a plastic bottle with a rag in ithardly a useful device since glass, which breaks, is essential to making the weapon named after comrade Molotov effective.) Saturday evening DC police entrapped and arrested 678 people at the demonstration against the prison industrial complex for parading without a permit. Police had tolerated small mobile demonstrations without permits for the previous two days, and none attending this demonstration had any intentions of getting arrested 12 hours before the big show the following morning. It was a blatant attempt by police to take some activists out of circulation, intimidate the less committed from coming downtown the next day, and to provoke violence.
On Sunday morning, DC police did a 180-degree tactical turn. They could have arrested up to 8000 people at the barricades on more serious charges than parading without a permit. They could have scattered demonstrators with massive doses of tear and pepper gas through which they could then have driven buses of delegates. But this would have recreated the publicity defeat of Seattle. Instead DC police were content with preventing demonstrators from entering their perimeter while permitting us to turn delegates in buses and on foot away. DC police chief Ramsey also preened for the adoring media as the wise wizard of peace. At 10:00 AM CNN reporters at the barricades told me CNN was reporting that the IMF meetings had not begun as scheduled. Later the mainstream media reported that the meetings had begun and showed carefully selected footage of some delegates attending some meeting. What I suspect actually happened was that some delegates entered the perimeter before 6:00 AM when demonstrators formed human barricades, some delegates entered through restaurants and offices closed for business bordering the perimeter, carrying their meeting clothes in shopping bags, and the IMF pre-planned a convincing show for any media willing to cooperate in its coverage. It is also true that the IMF meeting scheduled was a much smaller affair than the WTO ministerial, and was only intended to last one day. So it was easier to put on a show of success even though demonstrators turned away all the delegate buses that approached our barricades.
If that is the truth about who we are and what we did, what truths must we face up to if we are to become more effective?
Coordination and solidarity between different constituencies and organizations in the movement against corporate sponsored globalization still leaves much to be desired. Nothing is more important than preventing multinational corporations and their political, academic, and media hirelings from pitting first and third world groups and organizations against one another. First world constituencies have every reason to want to protect their hard won economic and environmental gains from being eroded away by the race to the bottom effect. Third world constituencies have every reason to want international economic relations to aid rather than obstruct their efforts toward sustainable development. Corporate sponsored globalization is the major threat to both these goals. We should avoid rhetoric and demands for reforms that have us fighting over jobs and over where pollution is dumped. It is important for first world groups to support land reform, cancellation of military aid, debt relief, aid without strings, and fair terms of trade, rather than seek only to append labor and environmental standards to free trade agreements in order to do our part to keep the international coalition against corporate sponsored globalization pulling together.
Cooperation and solidarity between different groups within the U.S. must also be improved. In Seattle the strengths of organized labor, DAN and anarchist groups were combined on November 30 fortuitously rather than through planned collaboration. In Washington behind the scenes meetings between a few representatives from the AFL-CIO, A16, and CTC were needed to prevent a break down of mutual support for each others events, and an extensive Internet dialogue between A16 and anarchist groups was needed to prevent a rift over tactics. At this moment the glue that held them together was that each group knew it would be much less successfulin fact, very vulnerablewithout the other, and that we would all be judged by the public on the success of the entire coalition rather than as individual organizations. We need to remember this and build on our experience as allies in Seattle and Washington. Specifically, I can say as an A16 activist that it was shameful so few of us attended the labor rally on April 12. If only those of us who were busy organizing and going to A16 meetings and teach-ins daily had attended the labor rally we could have added almost a thousand extra people. Just as the extra 1,000 people that labor brought to the Jubilee 2000 rally on April 9 meant something in a crowd of 5,000, an extra 1,000 from A16 would have meant something at the labor rally on Wednesday. I also think it is counter productive for AFL-CIO leaders to base their opinions of A16 on hearsay and rumors. By talking to some of us directly, they could have discovered far sooner than they did that A16 did not demand that the IMF and World Bank be shut down permanently. Some in A16 believe the world would be a better place if they were, others do not. But the position of A16 was simply that the IMF and World Bank are currently doing great harma position supported by the AFL-CIOand that we would try preventing them from doing more of that harm at their meetings on April 16 and 17. Direct communication would have also revealed that A16 never expected the AFL-CIO to bring significant numbers to the permitted rally on April 16, much less the civil disobedience, given the fact that they were mobilizing already for April 9 and April 12. We are different groups, who represent different constituencies, with different approaches to political activism. We are not going to change each others minds about certain things. But we still have a long way to go toward becoming effective allies and have been lucky so far that our failures in this regard have not done more damage than they have.
Finally, where were the Washington DC Black and Hispanic communities? Why were the demonstrators so white? It is easy to point accusing fingers here. The fact is that very few from the DC Black and Latino communities were at any of the demonstrations or rallies during the week. The fact is that if the movement against corporate sponsored globalization remains this white in the U.S. it will fail to achieve its goals. But this does not mean anyone is necessarily to blame for who was not there in Washington DC, or in Seattle for that matter. I believe A16 made a good effort to reach out to the Black and Latino communities leading up to the demonstrations. We contacted ministers in the African American community and sent people to speak to congregations. We organized a teach-in specifically for the Latino community. We developed special materials linking corporate sponsored globalization and IMF and World Bank policies to local economic problems like gentrification, job loss, and bank redlining. We worked with local tenants groups and took time to speak out and demonstrate against tenant evictions during our most busy month of preparations for A16. We targeted money and organizers specifically for work with minority constituencies. But the key is A16 made a good effort given who we are. With some notable exceptions, A16 was not composed of organizations and people who engage in local struggles day in and day out in Washington, DC. Local African American and Latino activists and constituencies know and understand this. Particularly in DC groups come into town and demonstrate around issues year in and year out, claiming their cause is also the cause of the citys poor minorities. Often it is, but only in the most general sort of way. Bad schools, substandard housing, environmental racism, job loss, welfare loss, police brutality, and lack of national political representation will all continue to be problems the African American and Latino communities in DC have to struggle against long after most A16 activists are gone from town. There is only so much anyone can do about this. We can avoid getting so wrapped up in our own international campaign against corporate sponsored globalization that we forget that local campaigns on other issues are equally important. We can continue to prioritize outreach to minority communities and work with and through their own grassroots and community organizations. We can scrutinize our own behaviorways of running meetings, tactical preferences, rhetoric, attitudes, and prioritiesto make sure we have not witlessly created obstacles that prevent African Americans and Latinos and their organizations from joining our coalitions. But we cannot be who we are not.
I think A16 did a good job of trying to reach out to the local African American and Hispanic communities in DC. I know there are those who believe a major rethinking and change of strategy and approach is in order to create a multi-racial movement against globalization. I have a great deal of respect for many who believe this, and am anxious to hear their suggestions. But I am not as discouraged by the lack of quick success in this area as some. The movement against corporate sponsored globalization, much less the Mobilization for Global Justice/A16, is not the whole movement for progressive social change in this country. Nor should we make the mistake of thinking we should be. Z
Robin Hahnel is professor of economics at American University, a long-time activist, and author of many books and articles. His latest book is Panic Rules! (South End Press)